Terrorism both domestic and abroad remain the top priority in a post-9/11 FBI, and Director James Comey highlighted those concerns and others during a visit to Mobile’s field office today.
Mobile’s is the 54th office Comey has visited since taking office a little over a year ago, and he said stops like these help him better understand and meet the needs of his agents and the agencies who work alongside them.
Comey said the FBI relies heavily on those partnerships when dealing with the threat of terrorism, and said several officers — including those from the Mobile Police Department, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and the Alabama Department of Public Safety — work with FBI personnel on a daily basis.
According to Comey, the threat of terrorism has changed over the past decade, and agents are now working to detect and prevent homegrown violent extremism and the possibility of Americans leaving the country to join Jihads overseas.
“We made progress as a country and with help from our allies against a primary tumor, which was the hub of al Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” he said. “We’ve shrunk that tumor significantly, but at the same time we’ve seen a metastasis.”
Comey identified that metaphor as the growing presence of Islamic extremist groups in northern Africa and the threat from ISIL, which the U.S. has recently engaged through airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.
Though they pose many threats, Comey said the FBI is most concerned by ISIL’s ability to attract and recruit citizens of other countries, including the United States, to come and fight alongside its members.
The FBI has also seen an “explosion of propaganda videos” that are available online, according to Comey. ISIL itself has become notorious for using the internet to disseminate videos of executions as well as anti-western propaganda that has successfully recruited citizens of both the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Comey said the agency has seen people from all walks of life and of all ages traveling to Syria to answer the call of jihadists.
“Their going there is worrisome, but their coming back someday is more worrisome because there will come a terrorist diaspora, out of Syria for example, and we’re determined not to allow a line to be drawn from that diaspora to future attacks on the U.S. and Western Europe,” Comey said.
Though Comey said stopping “homegrown” violent extremism has proven to be difficult, he said it isn’t impossible with cooperation from citizens and from local enforcement. He then cited the Kansas man whose plot to bomb the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport was foiled by an FBI investigation in 2013.
“It’s highly unlikely that a federal agent is going to be the first person to hear about some troubled soul about to engage in an act of violence somewhere. It’s usually going to be a deputy or a police officer,” Comey said. “Those relationships (with the FBI) are vital to the protection of this country, and I’m saying this in Alabama and at all our field offices. This isn’t a New York or a Washington problem, it’s an everywhere problem.”
Comey also took the opportunity to answer questions about the ongoing public discussion of privacy, public safety and the place where the two meet. He has recently made national headlines after calling on Congress to look at requiring wireless carriers to decrypt the data of cellphone users if requested to by federal law enforcement officials.
So far, that request has fallen deaf ears, but Comey told reporters this afternoon that “there shouldn’t be anyplace that is beyond the law.”
“The rule of law is the spine of the FBI, and so I want to make sure we’re using the process and are approved through judges to collect the content of emails and phones, but if I have an order, I need to be able to get the data,” Comey said. “I believe we can achieve that goal while also protecting people’s privacy. What we’re concerned about are companies selling cellphones that they themselves can never unlock.”
Comey said citizens have a right to protect their data, but compared unbreakable encryption to a trunk of automobile that even the manufacturer was unable to open.
Because of the nature of the information, Comey wouldn’t give details about the feedback he got from agents and office leaders in Mobile, but he did say things are running “pretty darn well.”
“I’m pleased to report there is a fired-up law enforcement community in Mobile, Montgomery and throughout Alabama,” Comey said. “There’s nothing the FBI does by itself. Whether it’s cyber, criminal or counter terrorism, we do it with our local law enforcement partners at the state and local level.”